More than £60m worth of fruit and vegetables went to waste in the first half of this year because labour shortages means crops are left to rot in fields, the farming industry has warned.
A survey by the National Farmers Union found that four in 10 growers had suffered crop losses thanks to a lack of pickers, with worker shortages averaging 14% across the industry.
The problems were made worse by some staff not turning up for work or quitting early. Growers expect a further fall in production next year of 4.4%
British farms have struggled to fill posts since the introduction of tough post-Brexit immigration rules on low-skilled workers after the freedom of movement from EU states ended.
Currently, the seasonal workers scheme provides up to 40,000 six-month visas to bolster the horticulture sector, but the farming sector says it needs up to 70,000. The scheme is due to end in 2024.
The war in Ukraine, record high temperatures and prolonged dry spells are also hurting the sector. The NFU called for rules on seasonal workers to be eased to plug the gaps.
Tom Bradshaw, the union’s deputy president, said: “It’s nothing short of a travesty that quality, nutritious food is being wasted at a time when families across the country are already struggling to make ends meet because of soaring living costs.
“At the same time, the prolonged dry weather and record temperatures have created a really challenging growing environment for our fruit and veg. Every crop is valuable – to the farm business and to the people whose plates they fill. We simply can’t afford to be leaving food unpicked.”
The boss of one global food business said farmers were being “nannied” by the government, taking aim at caps on the number of foreign workers allowed into the country.
Julian Marks, director of farming business Barfoots, said they had lost asparagus and courgettes earlier this season because at least 70 jobs were unfilled.
He told Times Radio: “The key to us is investing for the long term, so one of our big asks is to actually have some certainty with the seasonal workers programme that goes beyond 2023 and 2024.
“Also to remove some of the red-tape arbitrary caps on the number of people that come in.
“We’re a grown-up industry with grown-up people and being nannied by the Home Office is really not good for certainty at any level.”
Liz Truss, the Tory leadership candidate, has pledged to expand the scheme beyond its 2024 deadline, along with increasing the labour pool by an unspecified amount.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Labour shortages are affecting countries around the world.
“To support our farmers, we have already boosted the number of visas available through the seasonal workers route to 40,000.
“We have extended the scheme to include poultry and ornamental horticulture, we ran an automation review which will be published this summer and we are working to encourage people to take up jobs in the farming sector.”
The survey results show that £22m worth of fruit and vegetables has been wasted directly because of workforce shortages in the first half of 2022 alone.
As the survey represents around a third of the UK horticulture sector, the NFU estimates the overall value of food wasted accumulates to more than £60m.